On our first day back from vacation Mr. Brown asked the 8th grade English class to write a report called What I Did This Summer. The title may be elementary, but for good reason.
“I don’t want to hear that the assignment is unclear from any of you,” he said. Mr. Brown knows us well.
I thought I knew him well, too. I took a chance. I wrote an accurate account of my terrifying summer.
He gave me a D.
“It’s not a creative writing assignment. You were supposed to write about what actually happened, Shirley.”
“I did,” I say, louder than I mean to. I’m tapping my pencil on his desk. It’s a nervous tick I have.
“No. You gave me a gripping account of that stolen painting fiasco at the museum that I read about in the paper.”
“Yeah, I spent a whole week solving the case,” I say. “ I mean, I knew it was the curator’s wife within minutes but I needed proof.” He thinks I’m kidding.
“Be grateful you got a D. I didn’t give you an F because it was well-written. Next time, check the attitude at the door and do the assignment. That’ll be all, Shirley.”
This is how it is to be Shirley Link, the best detective in the world, if I do say so myself. I can spot a lie like most people spot a zit. I see connections where they hide best. And I get in trouble every time I try to tell people what I do with my free time. Only a handful know about my talent. I usually prefer to keep it that way. But when I trust someone, well, I just feel like telling them the truth. Is that wrong? I guess Mr. Brown has provided the answer to that mystery.
I’ve always had an eye for what evades us. My mom likes to tell the story about how the family got lost in one of those haybale mazes that Mr. Jones builds on his farm every Fall. Unfortunately, a twister suddenly whipped up that day. We could hear it beating hard on the corn crop nearby. It made sense to me that if we hugged a wall, headed right and traced one path then we’d find the exit. Mom caught the whole thing on her video camera by accident. It was dangling from her wrist so you can’t see much of what’s going on, but you catch glimpses of me walking with a big smile on my face even as the tornado came down on us. You see Dad scoop me up and run for the shelter when we escaped. Mom posted the clip to YouTube. It got two million views last I checked. Search for “3 Year Old Saves Her Family From Twister!”
So, the good thing is that I can always help Dad find the TV remote. The bad thing is I have to pretend to be someone else to fit in.
I don’t blame Mr. Brown, though. It’s my fault. I should have known better than to tell the truth about my life in a class paper.
My friend Wylie and I are in the school library. I call it The Scriptorium. It’s the best library I’ve ever seen. It has thousands of volumes lining beautiful cherry wood shelves, lit warmly by old Art Deco chandeliers. A skylight with colored glass casts everyone in one color or another, even on gray days. They say an anonymous donor gave my school, Oak Hollow High, a million dollars to build it. While I’m not one to be prideful, I do love The Scriptorium and spend as much time as I can in it.
So . . . Wylie. He’s a cute guy who any other girl would be happy to hang out with. At least that’s what I’m told. But at the moment I only see a guy picking something out of his ear. He may look busy but I know him. He’s trying to figure out how to make his homework more ‘razzle-dazzle’ as he likes to say.
He catches me staring. “You’ve got that face going on. What are you stewing about?”
“Nothing,” I lie, and glare at my Math book like it owes me money.
“Get over it Shirley. You can’t blame Mr. Brown for not believing you solved the museum case. Besides you said yourself that it’s best to lay low. You broke your own rule,” he says with that smirk he wears when he’s right and we both know it.
Someone coughs in the corner of the library. I guess we’re being too loud.
“I won’t do it again, that’s for sure,” I whisper.
“Hey ladies,” says Marie, as she plops into a cushy chair next to us. She’s my best friend most days. Wylie’s my best friend the rest of the time. They like each other a lot, but they would never admit it. Neither of them wants to mess up our little gang with crushes and breakups. It must be hard for him, though. She has the raven black hair, porcelain skin, long eyelash thing going on for her.
Marie puts her books down and leans back in her chair to show us what melodramatic exhaustion looks like.
“SO much homework it’s not funny. What are you two pretending to study?”
“I think I found a loophole in the History homework,” Wylie says, beaming and playing a drum roll with his fingers. “Mrs. Teed said she wants a summary of Lewis and Clark’s accomplishments, right? But she didn’t say which accomplishments. See? So I’m thinking I’ll write a story grampa told me where they fight these vampires in the Rocky Mountains that were brought here by Count Dracula when he fled Romania. And they, like, use this stupendous cannon that the Native American’s made with help from aliens.” The silence in the library is deafening. “You know. To blow the blood-suckers all the way to the South Pole,” he finishes, as if that will suddenly make the idea better.
We look at him, as we always do, with pity.
Marie turns to me. “You seem bummed,” she says, changing the subject. I shrug.
The cough from the corner of the room is more obnoxious now. It forces me to glance over. This is just what he wants. It’s Mr. Reese, the school principal. He wears the same outfit he wears every day. A beige suit, light blue shirt, red tie and hair that looks like it just went through a vacuum cleaner. He appears especially harried today, as his eyeglasses sit on his nose like they want to escape his face. He gestures for me to join him in the Periodicals Room. Marie and Wylie roll their eyes. They’ve seen this routine before. Mr. Reese knows all about my deductive skills and never hesitates to take full advantage.
The Stolen Chicken Caper.
Lost bank machine pin numbers.
Stolen mascot costumes.
It’s a one-way street though. I help him, and he makes my life miserable. Every adult’s ideal.
We stuff our books in our bags.
I take a good look at Mr Reese. I can immediately tell what kind of day he’s had. He may as well be wearing a ‘Kick Me’ sign.
“Looks like he had a flat tire this morning while taking the cat to the vet,” I tell my friends.
I’m not being funny. I can tell that he had a flat tire that morning while taking his cat to the vet.
Wylie’s face turns beet red.
“No way, Link. Not this time. You’re bluffing,” he says. I get a kick out of sharing my observations with him. He thinks they’re difficult to make. All they require is that I both look and see. It’s not that big a deal.
“Don’t make another bet,” Marie warns him. “You always lose.”
“I bet you dessert that you’re bluffing,” Wylie dares. The cafeteria’s sweets are like gold to him.
“Fine,” I say, enjoying the way his neck gets red when he’s mad.
“And he has a crush on the librarian,” I add. Just to blow his mind.
“I think she’s right, Wylie. Let it be,” Marie whispers.
“Dessert tomorrow too, then!” Wylie yells, getting into the tizzy that I enjoy so much.
The librarian, Ms. Conway, glares at us and shushes. She’s pretty, even when she frowns. I think every male in the school has a crush on her so my claim that Mr. Reese likes her is kind of elementary. But my deductions drive Wylie nuts so he’s likely blind to this fact.
Fine. More dessert for me.
We all find seats. Mr. Reese knows that he can trust my friends. He also knows I’m less likely to help him if I can’t show off in front of them. Did I ever say I was humble?
“Sorry about your flat tire this morning, Mr. Reese,” I say. “Next time let the vet take the cat out of the box. They don’t respond well to stressed people. Nasty that way.”
The principal’s eyes go wide in astonishment.
“How did you…”
“Your left knee, and only your left knee has mud on it, while your right hand has a splotch of oil and a small cut on the palm, likely from an unsuccessful attempt to jack the car up. I noticed your rear left tire was low yesterday and assumed you’d need to tend to it sooner than later. Also, I know you’ve used your credit card this morning since it’s outside your wallet and leaving an impression on your front pant pocket. LLBean. Fifty percent cotton, fifty percent polyester. The fresh thin slice on the back of your other hand looks like Fluffy’s work. I know that the cat is 21 years old and, as you’ve told me, goes to the vet once or twice a week. Anyone who spends that much time, effort and money on their cat is a dedicated owner, to put it politely. Since you’re also a control freak, no offense, I assume your affection for the cat and tendency to do everything yourself somehow convinced you it was a good idea to try to get Fluffy in and out of her cage yourself.”
“Amazing,” the principal says. “Sixty percent cotton, by the way Shirley.” I shrug. If that’s what he wants to believe.
“I told you, Wylie” Marie mutters. “And you know it’s brownie day today, right?”
“What about the whole other thing with the librarian thing . . . thing . . . y’know . . . ?”
I interrupt him before he hurts himself. “What Wylie is trying to say, in his own special way, is I think you have strong feelings for the librarian.”
“Ms. Conway? That’s ridiculous! I have strong feelings for her…book… categorization methodologies.”
“Uh huh,” I say nodding my head, not-at-all believing him, even a little bit.
“Ha! We’re even!” Wylie chirps.
I ignore him. I’m patient. The truth will come out in about two minutes.
“So what can I do for you today, Mr. Reese?” I ask.
The principal is shaken by our discussion, on top of his awful morning, so I put on my kindest face. I even smile a little. Marie slashes her fingers across her neck, telling me to stop with the fake grin. She must think I look creepy again.
I keep smiling, though. I need to practice. I have a problem with people thinking I’m mean.
“It’s about the new library wing,” Mr. Reese starts.
“The History of Media expansion?”
“But how . . . ” Mr. Reese begins.
“I didn’t know we were getting a bigger library,” Wylie says.
“Of course you didn’t,” I say. “No one knows. Mr. Reese was going to announce it when the school reached thirty thousand dollars. But the money was stolen last month.”
“How did you…” Poor Mr. Reese.
“I’ve known about it since I visited the school over break. I wanted to test the strength of the windows in the gym. They’re an unusual brand from the sixties that had triple insulation well before it was required. It turns out the inventor was a man by the name of…”
Marie checks the time on her iPhone.
“I’m sorry. Am I keeping you from something?” I ask.
“Yeah. The point. It seems so very far away right now,” Marie mutters.
I love Marie. I hate Marie.
“I saw the police here. I asked them what happened. A rookie told me. I have to say Mr. Reese I’m disappointed you didn’t come to me earlier. The trail is likely very cold.”
“Yes, well, I’m…sorry about that, Shirley. The thirty thousand was collected over the last several years by using five percent of the net profit from bake sales, car washes and the like. I worked with the Board of Ed to keep it quiet. I wanted it to be a surprise for you kids.”
“So if it was so secret then who knew about the money in the safe?”
“The board and teachers. Having the secret has actually done wonders for morale and community around here. I was thinking of doing more projects like this. But now…”
We all wait for him to finish. I trained Wylie and Marie to never interrupt someone when they’re talking. Why? Because it’s amazing what people will let slip when they wrap up their point. Most lies are told in the last few words of a statement.
“Now I’m not so sure they’ll keep me around,” Mr. Reese finishes.
“Your job is in danger?” I ask.
“I did lose thirty thousand dollars. They’re not saying anything, but I believe I’m the police’s prime suspect.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” I tell him.
“Not so ridiculous when you know the details of the case, I’m afraid.”
“Uh oh,” Marie and Wylie say at the same time.
“I’ll show you my office before next period begins. You’ll see that…”
“Mr. Reese, will you give us a moment?” I ask.
“Uh. Yes, of course. I’ll wait in the hallway. Please hurry. You can’t be late to class, kids.”
We watch him through the room’s window.
“So, what’s up?” Wylie asks.
“Mr. Reese’s hair naturally parts on the left,” I say. “But he thinks he looks better with it on the right. Watch him.”
Mr. Reese looks adoringly at the librarian, trying way too hard with his palm to get his hair to part to the right. He notices the kids watching him and smiles nervously with a wave. Now his hair sticks straight up for all of his efforts.
“Two desserts, Wylie,” I say, trying not to gloat more than my hourly allotment.
“Yeah, yeah,” Wylie grumbles.
“Most people learn not to touch the hot pot after they get burned once,” Marie teases.
“What is this? The 112th time?”
I notice that Ms. Conway gives Mr. Reese a sub-zero, etched-in-stone cold shoulder.
Poor, poor Mr. Reese.
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